Wellington College Festival of Education Day 2

Well, the Festival made it to another year, and unlike my previous prediction, it didn’t end up being called the Sun on Sunday Festival of Education and Tits. Sauron of Wapping has been deterred, not defeated, it seems. I’m very glad it’s grown legs though. There are possible criticisms that could be laid at its door- the enormous disparity of state versus private sector representation; the preponderance of commercial interests who inevitably want to transform the learning experience of children by, er, selling them lots of equipment and packages they don’t really need; that it over promotes the interests of those merely interested in education rather than those actually involved in it. I mean, I love Jackie Stewart. But WTF?

But nothing in this world of matter is perfect (except perhaps the knowledge that an inspector has been stranded in a space/ time wormhole, and will not be observing your lesson). What I like is the emphasis this has on being a Festival, not, as Seldon says, a conference. Consequently, instead of dreary Travel Inns and the dingy dungeons of Retail Trading estates, boiled sweets in a bowl, receipts hoarded, comfort breaks, brain storms, desperation and the smell of dreams crushed on the wheel of witlessness, we have something closer to a comics convention: guest appearances, celebrity rentagobs, workshops (with little work, or need of overalls), agreeable surroundings, entertainment and, of course, the illusion, however temporal, that education is an important and exciting thing in which to be involved.

Which of course it is, anyway. Maybe one day they’ll describe Glastonbury as ‘Wellington for people who haven’t left home yet.’

Today, I saw....

John D’Abbro, in the Old Gym, with the Candlestick

John represented something that I think the Festival needs a lot more of: state school representation by working teachers in challenging mainstream circumstances. Frankly I’m slightly tired of every decision that matters to the way state schools are run- and let’s remember, that means the vast majority of them- being made by people who have never set foot inside one. Which isn't to say there isn’t an enormous amount of good that collaboration between the sectors can achieve, (and if I'm honest, there are many things about private schools that the state could easily and inexpensively adopt to improve things enormously, were they not so burdened with the leaden low expectations of the barely employables who seem to run things at that level), just that the solutions for one pupil, let alone one school, aren't always transferable to other environments, and some of the more optimistic remedies encouraged in state schools have been brewed by people who only ever saw one from a train as they sped by.

John had a tough gig; the dawn slot on Sunday; if he’d been placed a little closer, a little later, he’d have enjoyed twice the audience, and deservedly so. His session was, unlike some, not a grand vision to transform the way we learn in the 23rd century of some such ordure, but a plea- considered, and carefully made- to turn a three term year into a four term year, jettisoning the absurdities of a system based on the Harvest in an age when most of my kids think that Harvest is a posh restaurant. He had me convinced. He’s a good old lad, John: hand outs for the room, questions to the audience….takes a teacher to model that kind of best practice.

AA Gill and the Coal Miner’s Daughter

Couldn't resist seeing the big beast himself AA Gill (‘First A for Adrian, the second isn’t for Areshole,’ he said, cutting half his audience’s hosses off at the pass). He retrod footprints he had already left from last year’s discussion, but when a turn like him comes along, the joy is simply in appreciating the process. I’m a fan of Gill, and not particularly by what he says- much of which veers from vindictive misanthropy to devilish prescience- but by the fluency and confidence and articulacy with which he says it. He really is quite the word ninja. I don’t understand people coming to his events-voluntarily, obviously- and then getting upset with him before storming out in a huff. Which happened four times (different people, obviously). The most impressive was a lady who proudly announced that her Dad was a Welsh miner, went a bit Rita Heyworth, and stormed out loudly. YOU GO GIRL. Literally.

Why get upset? I mean, OK, he was pretty rough on schools (summary of argument: I had a rubbish time at school: schools are shit), but who gives a shit what AA Gill thinks about schools? I mean, seriously? And I don’t mean that as an insult to the man. I’m sure he doesn’t give a consommé of Hippogriff what I think about his column, and why should he? When a child kicks off in my class, I don’t get all upset and walk out; I think, ‘There’s a child kicking off. Do I need to do anything?’ 

Do NOT approach
'Raise Online?' 'Thanks, I've just been.'
So if you find yourself in the lecture hall of a nasty columnist who thinks teachers are babysitters, and education is a modern and unnecessary invention, then just take a breath, think of your happy place, and work your ghosts out somewhere else. Gill dealt with each outburst like a farrier rasping dried dung from a horse's hoof ,sort of dislocated from giving a fuck by the practised manners of a man who intrinsically knows he’s better than you. He’s an acquired taste, I realise. Besides, he’s what my Mum would call a stirrer- he LOVES to see people pop a vein. It makes him mightier.

The Essex Boys- Vic Goddard and Stephen Drew

You probably know about my thoughts on this pair. I’ve followed their exploits so closely I nearly applied for a restraining order myself. Educating Essex was teachers’ landmark telly last year, and rightly so. Vic and Stephen were for-once-deserving reality TV stars, because they were famous for being good at something, not merely for having little sense of privacy or dignity. It harked back to a gentler age when people made the papers because they’d climbed something high or invented rubber.

Their session was all heart, and some brain- throw in courage, and you’ve got a yellow brick road right there. They were also a great double act: a combination of high camp and comedy that resembled Morecambe and Wise sitting up in bed, wearing dressing gowns and smoking pipes. They briefly described their TV experience, and linked it to their vision of teaching- sort of a ‘no child left behind’ policy that initially had me suspicious when I first heard about it in EE, but which had won me over once I realised that, far from not excluding pupils and then simply recycling them through the system, to the perpetual Hell of the teaching staff and no purpose at all for the kids (as normally happens in most schools that proudly claim to never exclude), they actually work with the kids through the process, trying to make the disciplinary process meaningful and constructive. It’s a Hell of a hard job, and unless a school can commit to the whole cycle with resources ands staff, it’s a disaster. But they made it work.

They, and their school, are on a pedestal for many in the profession, and it’s right that they are. Clone the fuckers and let’s get things sorted in mainstream education, please. Mr Drew starts a new Headship this year, and I wish him every success. Vic- young enough to have the energy required to do the job, old enough to have a wise head on his vertiginously tall shoulders, has big shoes to fill. Or none, given that the last time I saw Stephen in Passemores he was barefoot to the sock. Let’s hope his next school has carpets, or his whole strategy’s up the swanny.

Ben Goldacre and the Chamber of Bad Science

The God-King of Nerds took the cavernous marquee at what, for me, was the last gig of the day. I expected a room full of people all playing an online RPG while swapping insults based on the periodic table to each other on chat rooms that had been invented for just this session. I wasn’t far disappointed, to be honest; the Twitter rate was a blur in this room, in homage to the incarnation of data-based science who had descended to be amongst them.

I rate Goldacre extremely highly; his Bad Science book was an elegant and accessible hand grenade pitched into the murky swamp of media coverage, faulty experiments, Quixotic research claims and vested interests that devils our modern understanding of science. And his column has cross-bowed into a collective psyche that appears to have an appetite for reason and empirically testable claims. Science gets poorly treated in the popular media, mainly because most people in the media don’t understand science, having graduated with, at best, good degrees in literature and history, and at worst, degrees in media. Good science coverage is rarer than the Jabberwock, and science in schools, while treated as core, often loses out to children’s enthusiasm for the softer, less difficult crypto-sciences like Psychology or Sociology. Which, y'know, are about people and that and people are interesting, innit?

His set was familiar to anyone conversant with his writing, but he wasn’t there to launch a campaign, just repeat his message that good science and bad science are not the same thing, and that difference isn’t hard to make. One of the things I admire about him is that he offers on his website to come and do a speech, a chat, with any school that he can fit in, for free, as long as the school just gives him the travel expenses he asks for without lifting a pen to fill out a form. I rather like that. I imagine it puts many schools into a panic as they contemplate accounting for the sudden hole in their spread sheets.

I bailed in the last fifteen minutes, so unless anyone wants to tell me that David Starkey and Penny Independent came back and tag-teamed him like Hulk Hogan, I presume it finished in the same vein. 

'Right, who's sitting with whom?'
The Wellington Staff Room
On the train home I heard that AC Grayling claimed that students at school today were training for jobs that hadn't even been invented yet. It was probably just as well I left. AC Grayling, I am VERY, VERY disappointed.

Trivia, trivium, trivialla-ossenfeffer-Katzen-ellen-bogen-by-the-sea

1. Inexplicably, but gratefully invited to the High Table on Saturday Evening, where the Illuminati of Education gathered together to scarf jugged ocelot, potted centaur and Kraken mignons marinated in mermaid milk. I don’t know, I didn’t check the menu. I had to swear an oath signed in blood to secrecy, until everything went a bit Eyes Wide Shut and suddenly it’s FIDELIO FIDELIO AND I WAKE UP IN MY ROOM AND THE GIRL’S DEAD

So. Sat next to an interesting guy and we exchanged names as you do.

Me: And you are?

Him: *something I don’t catch*

Me: And what do you do?

Him: I run one of the largest teacher trade unions in the UK.

Me: Ah.

2. Bumped into Cordelia Williams the pianist who was at the Festival to talk about high performance playing. I was staying in the Wellington lodgings, the agreeably retro, time-capsule lodgings for errant guests of the House (or hapless speakers too disorganised to get their shit together to book a hotel in time). I left my room at silly-early o’clock to use the floor shower. She looked ready to attend a red-carpet awards ceremony, and walked with the air of the effortlessly elegant. I resembled, at that point in the morning, something that would normally be used to accelerate the coagulation of a good cheese. It was edifying. *checks* Sorry, mortifying.

3. Had some quality catch up time and first time introductions with an enormous number of people. Thank you to Old Andrew, Geoff Barton, David Didau, Liz Maine, Nic Amy, Paul Dix, Sarah Simons, Anne Mroz, David James, Amanda Speilman, Charlie Taylor, Gerard Kelly and many more. You are the wind beneath my wings. And thanks to Wellington for the best bit of CPD I’ve had in ages. Probably since the last one.


  1. I don't want to sound too mushy here, but there are times reading your blog I feeling like standing on my desk and... well, you get the picture. You inspire me to wish that I'd chosen teaching as a profession, which had I a brain, no fear and the ability to manage more than one child at a time, might have been an option. Alas....

    1. *hugs*

      Thanks Phil, that means a lot to me, really. What you up to these days?



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